Before the coronavirus pandemic, around 40,000 Venezuelans would cross the Simón Bolívar International Bridge daily to work in Colombia or purchase scarce goods. Pregnant women walked miles to seek critical prenatal care unattainable in their country.
Today, that journey has reversed. With Colombia on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Venezuelans no longer able to make a living there are attempting to return to their native country. However, with the pandemic prompting a near-shut down of the border, thousands of Venezuelans are stranded or forced to use unsafe routes to return home.
In response to these developments, the International Rescue Committee has moved rapidly to set up medical facilities directly on the Colombia-Venezuela border, providing basic care and COVID-19 testing for a population in critical need. Go inside our work and find out more about the “double emergency” Venezuelans are facing as the pandemic compounds the economic uncertainty that has uprooted their lives for years.
A population hidden behind locked doors
Prior to the pandemic, many Venezuelans living in Colombia worked in the informal economy—selling candy or cigarettes, performing on the street for pennies—or simply begged for money.
When Colombia’s government locked down the country in late March, these survival strategies became impossible. Venezuelans realize that a national lockdown means that few people are outside in public places; they also fear they could be fined or deported if they venture outside. The result is that a population already struggling before the pandemic risks going hungry.
“Before COVID-19, people were eating just two meals a day,” says Marianne Menjivar, the IRC's country director for Colombia and Venezuela. “Now they eat one, and it’s just a flour-based arepa.”
In addition, Venezuelans living in Colombia often lack ready access to clean water to wash their hands (or even drink) and homelessness has increased. Humanitarian agencies offering aid have found it hard to locate the people most in need.
“It's very difficult to find them once they're behind locked doors,” says Menjivar. “There’s 400,000 [Venezuelans] in Bogotá alone. But the issue is, where are they?”
Learn more: IRC Voice and actress Morena Baccarin and country director Marianne Menjivar discuss the crisis Venezuelans are facing
Thousands of “caminantes” try to return home
Thousands of so-called “caminantes,” or “walkers,” are now heading back to Venezuela—again by foot. Nearly 10,000 have re-crossed the Simón Bolívar bridge, just one entry point into the country, since the beginning of April. The closure of the border has left even more stranded or forced to take unsafe routes to return home, as only a small number of people deemed “vulnerable” are able to cross at official points of entry.
Despite the increased risks, Venezuelans continue to make the hazardous journey—economic hardship gives them no option. Menjivar cites an informal survey of migrants at the border: “100 percent said they have lost their ability to make a steady income due to the quarantine and the pandemic.”
“Our team of doctors are at the bridge, literally.”
When the Colombia-Venezuela border closed, the IRC quickly assembled teams of doctors and nurses to provide triage care to stranded travellers. The IRC teams set up in two areas: directly on the Simón Bolívar bridge and on the Bogotá-Chia highway also frequented by Venezuelans walking to the border.
In addition to addressing essential needs, the medical teams test for COVID-19 and offer referrals and support to anyone who has contracted the disease.
“Our team of doctors are at the bridge, literally,” says Menjivar. “We do temperature checks then, right there, you can get the rapid test for COVID-19. If you're positive, we’re able to support you as you recover and get you access to medical services, shelter and food.”
For years, the IRC has been providing high-quality health care for Venezuelans and other vulnerable people in Colombia. One IRC-operated clinic has been providing free care and cash assistance since 2018: when the pandemic started, the clinic added telemedicine to its list of services. IRC clinics have long provided maternal and reproductive health services to Venezuelan women living in Colombia.
Now the IRC is providing many of these same services to migrants on the bridge and highway; reproductive and maternal care has become critical as government health systems focus on COVID-19. “Pregnant women are going to give birth, pandemic or not,” says Menjivar. “Pretending like nothing but COVID-19 matters is condemning people to higher maternal mortality rates.”
Providing for basic needs in a pandemic
The journey for caminantes can be brutal. Menjivar describes meeting a group of 200 forced to camp next to a gas station. The migrants, whose numbers included six pregnant women, slept outdoors on cardboard for five days without access to soap or other means of keeping clean—conditions that put them at heightened risk for COVID-19. The IRC was able to provide this group with hygiene kits containing soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper and towels.
In addition to medical care, the kits are a critical part of the IRC’s response alongside clean water and food. More than 1,100 have been delivered to those stranded on the bridge or highway, or living near the border.
The IRC, working with a consortium called VenEsperanza, is also helping Venezuelans in need with cash assistance—important because it allows recipients to buy whatever is most needed for their families. So far, more than 230,000 Venezuelans have benefited from this critical aid, including some of the families stuck on the Simón Bolívar bridge.
Menjivar hopes the solidarity shown by programmes like VenEsperanca—and by IRC frontline responders on the Simón Bolívar bridge and around the world—can create something positive during the pandemic.
“If there is a silver lining of COVID-19, it’s a true spirit of collaboration, of support, of empathy and solidarity, because it's a worldwide pandemic,” says Menjivar. “It's something that we've never faced before. There's so many things about the disease that we don't know. And it really is time to come together and hunker down.”
How you can help
Donate to the IRC today to help Venezuelans in need, along with refugees and displaced people around the world who will be hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.